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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

L.A. Lakers Versus Miami Preview

NBA Finals

L.A. Lakers (52-19) vs. Miami (33-29)

Season series: L.A., 2-0

Miami can win if…Jimmy Butler is the best player on the court down the stretch, Bam Adebayo controls the paint, and some combination of Goran Dragic/Tyler Herro/Duncan Robinson stretches the Lakers' defense with effective three point shooting.

Butler has developed a propensity for starting games slowly only to take over down the stretch. He claims that this is by design--he gets his teammates involved early before serving as the late game closer--but it would be surprising if this proves to be a recipe for championship success. While it is true that some great players prefer to ease into the flow of the game, Butler often takes this to the extreme, resulting in Miami falling behind by double digits. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were two of the deadliest closers in pro basketball history, but they did not make a habit of being virtually invisible on offense during the first three quarters. Butler is second on the team in playoff scoring (20.7 ppg), tied for second in playoff rebounding (5.7 rpg), third in playoff assists (4.5 apg) and first in playoff steals (1.9 spg). He averaged 19.0 ppg (fourth on the team), 6.0 rpg (third on the team), 5.0 apg (second on the team), and 1.7 spg (first on the team) during Miami's six game win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. He must be a consistent and productive scorer--that means stringing together 20 point games, as opposed to scoring 30 followed by 10--while also making an impact defensively, particularly when he is matched up with LeBron James.

Adebayo has been a tremendous all-around force during the playoffs, ranking third on the team in playoff scoring (18.5 ppg), first in playoff rebounding (11.4 rpg), first in playoff assists (4.9 apg), second in playoff steals (1.2 spg), and first in playoff blocked shots (.9 bpg). He was at his best in the Eastern Conference Finals, leading the team in scoring (21.8 ppg), rebounding (11.0 rpg), assists (5.2 apg), and steals (1.7 spg) while ranking second in blocked shots (1.0 bpg). He will be matched up with Anthony Davis, and he has the necessary skill set plus the correct mentality to challenge Davis at both ends of the court. Adebayo's playmaking ability forces the defense to protect not only against his drives and his rolls to the hoop, but also against his passing.

Dragic is leading the Heat in playoff scoring (20.9 ppg) while shooting .452 from the field (including .363 from beyond the arc) and .814 from the free throw line. He ranks second on the team in playoff assists (4.7 apg). He has thrived as the third best player, taking advantage of the attention opposing teams must pay to All-Stars Butler and Adebayo. 

Herro ranks fourth on the team in playoff scoring (16.5 ppg), including a 37 point explosion in a game four Eastern Conference Finals win, setting the record for most points by a rookie in a Conference Finals game. Thanks in part to Miami's 3-2 defense that lifts the wings and positions the guards closer to the basket, he ranks fourth on the team in playoff rebounding (5.5 rpg), including second on the team in rebounding (6.3 rpg) versus the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Robinson led Miami with 20 three point field goals made versus Boston while shooting .408 from long range. He is not the consistent scorer or all-around impact player that Butler, Adebayo, Dragic, and Herro are, but his outside shooting could prove to be critical versus L.A.

Another key for Miami will be Andre Iguodala's defense versus LeBron James. Iguodala has already won a Finals MVP (2015) based largely on his ability to at least slow down James, and he has consistently shown that he guards James at least as well as any other player in recent memory.

L.A. will win because…the Lakers have the more talented, deeper roster, starting with two of the top five players in the league. LeBron James had yet another MVP caliber regular season, while Anthony Davis also played at an MVP level and was a contender for the Defensive Player of the Year award.

James ranks second on the Lakers in playoff scoring (26.7 ppg) while shooting .547 from the field (including .349 from beyond the arc) and .741 from the free throw line. James leads the Lakers in playoff rebounding (10.3 rpg) and playoff assists (8.9 apg) while also averaging 1.3 spg and 1.0 bpg. James averaged 27.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg, and 9.0 apg versus Denver, ranking second, first, and first on the team in those categories. It is remarkable that James continues to play at such a high level as a 35 year old in his 17th NBA season.

Davis is leading the Lakers in playoff scoring (28.8 ppg) while shooting .571 from the field (including .366 from beyond the arc) and .810 from the free throw line. Davis is also averaging 9.3 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.2 bpg, and 1.2 spg. Davis led the Lakers in scoring (31.2 ppg) in a five game win over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, but he posted subpar rebounding (6.2 rpg) and shot blocking (.6 bpg) numbers during that series; there is no excuse for a player with his size and athletic ability to average less than at least 9-10 rpg and at least 1.5-2.0 bpg. Nevertheless, Davis--when properly focused--has no skill set weaknesses: he can score from inside, outside, and the free throw line, he is capable of being a dominant rebounder, he is an above average passer, and he is an elite defender.

As is often the case, many media members are pretending that James' supporting cast is not very strong. Don't buy that nonsense. First, the Lakers clearly have the two best players in this series, and that is typically the decisive factor in a playoff series. Second, their supporting cast includes one certain Hall of Famer (Dwight Howard) and one serious Hall of Fame candidate (Rajon Rondo)--and, unlike some Hall of Famers on previous championship contenders (I won't name names here), they are not just along for the ride hoping to pick up a championship ring while others do the heavy lifting: Howard has been a force in the paint, while Rondo's leadership, playmaking, and defense have been vital. The Lakers also have a potential future All-Star (Kyle Kuzma), a "3 and D" player with championship experience (Danny Green), and other solid role players.

Other things to consider: This is LeBron James' 10th NBA Finals appearance but the first time that he has faced one of his former teams on the sport's biggest stage. After James left Miami to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers, Pat Riley declared that the Heat would no longer have to deal with  "smiling faces with hidden agendas." Riley had one particular smiling face in mind, and it is not a mystery that James was that smiling face. This matchup is deeply personal for both men, regardless of what either may say publicly now.

After failing to win a championship during his first stint in Cleveland, James learned how to win as a member of Riley's Heat. James led the Heat to two titles, and then picked up a third title after going back to Cleveland. During his long Finals career, James has lost as a favorite (2011) and won as an underdog (2016) but he long ago stated the standard by which he should be measured: he never considers his team to be an underdog because he ranks himself as the best player on the planet. By the standard that James has set for himself, a 3-6 NBA Finals record is disappointing, to say the least. Further, there is no rational excuse for James' Lakers to not win this series. James is healthy and at the top of his game. Davis is an elite player entering his prime. The Heat do not have a top 10 player--let alone a top five player--while the Lakers have two top five players. It could be argued that James' legacy is already written, but that would only be true if he had retired; he kept playing, and he kept playing at a high level, so if he fails to win the title and drops to 3-7 in the NBA Finals that reinforces the notion that James is lacking something that Bill Russell (11-1 in the NBA Finals), Michael Jordan (6-0), Kobe Bryant (5-2), and other Pantheon players possessed. That is the standard that James set for himself, and it is the standard to which players of his caliber should be held.

This is also a "legacy" series for Davis. Perhaps he will advance to the NBA Finals many more times, but nothing is promised. This is is first opportunity to show what he can do in the NBA Finals, and such opportunities should be cherished and embraced.

No Heat player has put together a Hall of Fame caliber resume yet, but the player who has the most to gain is Butler. Many media members painted him as a malcontent after his stints in Chicago, Minnesota, and Philadelphia, but Butler is making a strong case that he was not the problem in those situations; those teams have suffered in his absence, while he and the Heat have been a perfect match. If Butler can lead the Heat to a title versus the James-Davis duo then that will permanently elevate his status. Butler is not as big or talented as James or Davis, but James has a losing Finals record against several All-Stars who are not as big or talented, so the possibility of an upset cannot be discounted.

Regardless of the outcome, the Heat should be commended for the mentality that they embrace: under Riley's leadership, the Heat have never tanked and they have never made excuses. Daryl Morey, Sam Hinkie, and other "stat gurus" who have been lauded in the media despite never winning anything of consequence should carefully study how Riley runs an organization.

The Heat have enough talent and the right mentality to challenge the Lakers. If the Heat provide that challenge, then it will be interesting to see how the Lakers respond.

I predict that the Lakers will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM



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